“I believe there is a pendulum shift in the world of fiber--the world of connecting. In rural areas, especially, there are unserved communities that don’t have a way to connect.”
Bobby Gonzalez is Chairman of the Caddo Nation, a federally recognized Native American tribe in Oklahoma. He joined the Fiber Broadband Association for a recent Fiber for Breakfast episode to share his experience with bringing broadband to Indian Country.
“Coordination between the broadband industry and tribal governments could be huge,” Gonzalez said. “Tribal enterprises aim at eliminating the connectivity gap that exists because there is a need in Indian Country across the United States to ‘plug in.’”
Less than 68% of tribal people across the United States have access to the internet, Gonzalez noted.
“We think, how can that happen in today’s day and age?” he said. “But you go out to the Navajo Nation and in some of the pueblos they still don’t have running water. Some don’t have electricity.”
When COVID-19 hit, Gonzalez explained that many tribal communities suffered due to a lack of internet connectivity.
“We didn’t have telehealth. People didn’t have internet. People didn’t have access to what’s going on related to COVID-19. The education need, laptops, being able to do work at home--you name it, it was a complete disaster,” Gonzalez reflected.
“Most Native American families have multiple families living in one household,” he explained. “They don’t have Internet; they don’t have health care. Sometimes, even getting to a computer to plug into the Internet, you have to drive somewhere. There are all of these issues in Indian Country that we have.”
He said as a result, the people in Indian Country are falling behind.
There is funding set aside by the Treasury Department to address this gap, totaling $10 billion. Part of that allocation is the American Rescue Plan Act that allocates $10 million to territories and tribal governments in states to work towards closing the digital divide.
“The American Rescue Plan Act is just one example where there are dollars attached to connecting rural areas where tribal people then have that opportunity,” Gonzalez said, before adding that the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Department of the Interior, the Department of Energy and many others are all working together to fix the tribal connectivity gap.
But Gonzalez said funding these projects is only part of the equation.
“The problem is, how do you put broadband in? How do you build the network? How do you contract? What partners do you need? Those are all of the questions that tribes are faced with, and there’s a disconnect,” he admitted.
Tribes across Indian Country are in need of partnerships with local providers to achieve broadband expansion in their territories, he explained.
“That billion dollars is up for grabs for the entities that come together. You have to try. You have to partner,” he said. “Tribes are looking for help from the fiber industry.”
The United States has 574 federally recognized tribes, comprised of 2.1 million people. But no two tribes are the same, Gonzales explained, which means that fiber deployment needs to happen on a tribe-by-tribe basis.
“There is a divide, and it’s enormous. And it’s being pushed at the highest level in the United States, and it’s not going to stop.” Gonzalez said. “This is only the beginning, related to the technology and where we’re headed in the future, and tribes are going to catch up.”
Hear Bobby Gonzalez’ presentation in full on the Fiber for Breakfast podcast here.